Editor’s Note: You may recall our Podcast episode featuring professional driver Paul Gerrard and his new book, Optimum Drive. In our podcast, Paul mentioned he was getting set to take on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and we are elated to share part 2 of his amazing journey. Paul gives us a rare insight into the world of motorsport and the unique challenge of this iconic race in Colorado. We hope you enjoy part 2 of this terrific driver’s amazing journey up Pikes Peak. Here is part 1.
Written By: Paul Gerrard
Photos: courtesy of Dave Liddle
#teamnosleep had a list a mile long to complete and very little time to do it, it was race week and we had to test at La Junta one last time before we locked into inflexible Race Week with all its traditions, procedures (like tech inspection), and finally testing and racing got into full swing. The oil and cooling systems were all getting major revisions, the whole crew had arrived for the most part and it was all hands on deck for the La Junta test. You see we could do 10 minute runs there. Once on the mountain it would be very hard to tell if we have solved out cooling problems with the mountain segments only being a few minutes. I get in the car, the engine guys have been busy – the boost is up, we are making serious horsepower now, it makes me smile. I like really fast cars for some reason they suit me, they make me happy therefore more boost makes me happy. I was happy, the car flew. Power changes cars – it was easier to get into the window, everything came alive, became harmonious, you could feel all of Seb’s aero complement Cody’s chassis and Aric’s (and Manuel’s) setup. It was glorious until the rear wing exploded at 170MPH. I once again dutifully brought the car back to the pits, it had been less than ten minutes, so we didn’t know about the cooling system and we now had to figure out how to build of rebuild a disintegrated wing in less than 24 hours to pass tech inspection. Back to the bat cave (Cole’s spotless shop, RPM Performance).
It was frustrating for everyone – two steps forward one step back but then you just had to remember this is a one off custom design and not some show car. We were trying to progress the car within a few weeks what should have taken months if not years. The fact that there were steps forward happening was a minor miracle. On the outside, the car made every day and every run on the mountain. If not for the PTSD symptoms displayed by the team each morning you’d think we had simply put in it the trailer each day after we ran it and then pulled it out at the track the next morning…boy was that not the case.
Cody is Calm?
We were all back at the shop, carbon jigsaw puzzle laying on the floor. We are stressing but we are not talented fabricators… Cody just looks at the mess and knows he can put it back together. I am not so sure, I think back to my earliest days driving and Paul Ricard Circuit, standing at the spot Elio De Angelis died…from a broken rear wing. You remember moments like that all your life. Then I thought I’ll be up on a mountain road in a car faster than Elios F1 car. I made a phone call, like when a doctor gives you news you don’t want to accept, you want a second opinion. This was Cody’s first carbon fiber work he had ever done, but I happen to be friends with a guy that has a resume’ in carbon that has stretched for decades and to the extremes of that magical material. His name is Eric Strauss and he is completely nuts… he fit in immediately. I shouldn’t have been worried, Eric saw the master fabricators work after dropping everything to come a rescue me and simply said…”that’ll work”. Cody is calm.
Cody is not just calm, he is also the man. All of this was for him, he is magnetic – everyone there sucked into his dream. We all desperately wanted to make it happen for him like some crazy idea that seemed brilliant at the time, with your best friends, in a tree fort, when you were eleven. Only we aren’t eleven, we had developed skills and resources, we now could actually accomplish things now not just stare up at the branches swaying in the wind and the clouds drifting by dreaming.
Dreaming is Easy, Life is Hard
As per usual for #teamnosleep, we cut things close and get to tech inspection with minutes to spare. As soon as we roll the car out of the trailer the crowd is there, the cameras are clicking. The car and Cody have a surprisingly huge internet following. It has to do of course with the underdog absurdity of it all. You simple don’t just build a prototype in your shop and take it to Pikes Peak. You build a Subaru or an EVO, maybe a Porsche or a GTR. Those are known cars with a performance backgrounds and strong aftermarket support. You just need money to buy stuff that already exists on a shelf somewhere. That’s not Cody’s DNA. Nothing off the shelf was going to threaten an overall on the mountain, that was done by prototypes and prototypes cost millions to build and run, unless you are Cody who welds like a demon and learns carbon fiber like Neo learns Kung Fu in the Matrix. The internet loves people like Cody, people we can all vicariously live through.
The tech inspection team also seems charmed by the Enviate sitting there looking like, well, a million bucks. We breezed through tech, could have sworn I heard Cody say “these are not the droids you are looking for” several times. Whatever, it worked – the only fix was shortening the seat belts slack. We were in shock and Cody was just smirking “told ya’ so”.
On Mountain Testing Begins
We were feeling pretty good considering. It was dark, cold, 4:30 AM and we at 13,000ft waiting for the sun to come up. Car was ready, many fixes in place, rear wing now stuffed with aluminum and rivets, cooling system, catch can systems all new and improved. Strapped in minutes after sunrise and off we go. What do I notice? Car is all over the place – bumps are yanking the wheel out of my hands and I catching air in places, which would be fine if I was trying to set a world record with Hot Wheels for just distance in a truck (like I did with Tanner Foust in 2011). This though is a car with four very generous (for a prototype) inches of total wheel travel, not a Baja truck. It was the most scared I had ever been on the mountain. Mainly I was surprised – on the racetrack the car was fun, predictable and balanced, but that crazy undulating surface from the tire test was so much worse on the top. We thought we had solved it with the slower ratio steering rack, but now on the bigger bumps on the top section I realized it was much worse that we thought. Luckily this was an optional day and that meant we would get to try the top again before the race on Sunday. Our experienced competitors flew, we were slow with big gaps to the front. This was not going to be easy, I was quiet on the way down, the mountain had humbled me, there was much work to do (#teamnosleep).
As luck would have it, the very first day of official practice was our qualifying. The field was broken up into three groups, and out of the three days whenever you were on the lower section that was your qualifying run. It happened to be our first day. The bottom is fast and it’s also the longest section from the start to Glen Cove. We had a very robust debrief after day one and fortunately the smart guys on the team (everyone but me basically) had corrected my assumptions on what to do next with the suspension. I wanted to go softer thinking all of that jarring and bouncing was caused by the suspension was too stiff (because it felt so good on the racetrack) but it turns out that our fancy third heave springs were actually too soft and we weren’t too stiff, we were bottoming – we actually needed to be much stiffer. Counterintuitive in a way, but absolutely correct. The car was transformed, with much of the dartiness banished to a bad memory. On the third run we slapped on the soft tires fresh off the warmers at 200F and went for a time. The warmed tires felt amazing and I was finally getting into a rhythm in a 1000 HP high downforce car rocketing up a narrow mountain road. I was sure we would be second or so which would really help our start position race day. Unfortunately, two minutes in, a wire (we later found out) to one of the water pumps got pinched and shorted out, causing the car to immediately overheat. I nursed it to the finish much slower that the cars potential but still good enough for what it turns out would be seventh overall. From that moment though, failing pump aside, we were competitive on the mountain (not just setting lap records on smooth racetracks), the car worked here, Cody, Sebastien and Aric were right – this missile was a true modern Pikes Peak Special.
Fast is One Thing…
The whole this about racing that attracts us in the first place is the shear speed. Speed alone rarely ever wins races. It is consistency and consistency comes from two things: reliability and predictability. It is the objective science saying the package is known, we understand it, can control it and therefore predict it. From that we get a feeling: trust. When a driver can trust the car they can do something almost magical, they can become one with the car they can flow…together. This is where real speed comes from. I know that’s not what people outside of racing want to believe. They want us to be crazy, but we are not we are more like meditating monks who happen to be controlling something going hopefully extraordinarily fast. (personal plug: if this seems remotely interesting to you pick up my book Optimum Drive). Enviate and I now had the beginnings of trust and the times showed it was, reliability problems aside, the second fastest car on the mountain.
Them’s the Brakes
One thing I haven’t mentioned was the brake package, common sense tells Pikes Peak drivers not to use F1-style carbon-carbon brakes, the reason is warm up time, they don’t work until about 800F (up to about 1400F) so for the first few miles you have basically no brakes, not good. Rob Smith and RPS Carbon Brakes though had a new process that allowed the brakes to work at 300F, that’s easy to get to, especially if you have 1000 HP, just the odd drag of the left foot while on the gas will get them in range and they are ready to go before you need them (very important point). I’m the lucky guy that first got to try them on the mountain and they are staggeringly great brakes. Power is absurd (with Seb’s aero in full effect), modulation easy and granular release characteristics (for all you trailbreakers out there). They were the best brakes I have ever used and this car demanded no less than that.
The mountain is very different top to bottom. Curvy, flowing, and fast surrounded by trees gives way to stop and go ultra-narrow hairpins as you climb above tree line. Very different rhythm and challenge. Strangely enough, on paper you’d think our car wouldn’t like the stop and go middle section while in reality it is really good at it. You see Cody and Aric didn’t just replicate a Le Mans car, they knew the minimum speed of Pikes Peak were much lower and on some of the hairpins you go as slow as 25mph. Our car is just rear wheel drive but it has more static weight on the back than a normal mid-engine car and a geometry that optimizes weight transfer under acceleration, so it launches of any corner like it was a drag car and I already told you how good the RPS brakes are so yeah, this thing works everywhere.
Slow is Fast?
So the last day of practice arrives, back to Devils Playground at 13,000ft. Another all-nighter adding this time five more degrees of caster to the mix to further improve stability, nut and bolt the entire car (every night), corner weighted, aero tweaks. I don’t know the half of what gets done to the car every night, you want to know why? I’m sleeping, that’s why< They kick me out, they want me fresh and ready in the morning, it feels terrible leaving them at 10PM when you know they are going to show up at the house at 1AM only to have to get up at around 2AM, but they are right. It’s a waste of all their effort if I’m too wiped to focus. For this I am eternally grateful to them, the selflessness. So, I go out on my first run, taking it easy, un-warmed tires, just a shakedown like I do every morning. It turns out we go second quickest and are within 1.4 seconds of Romain Dumas…The King of the Mountain. This is getting interesting. Fog rolls in and closes the curtain on a very productive practice week. The car has gone from scary undriveable to a real contender. Golf clap for an amazing crew.
Colorado Springs really embraces the Hill Climb and the Friday of race week they shut down downtown and we set up and sign autographs and fire up the car on the two step (a drag launch system that builds boost by dumping fuel and igniting it after the cylinders) crating a serious racket, pretty fire, and sparks that really gets the thousands of fans whipped up into a fervor (hopefully just short of looting or stripping the car for souvenirs). Good fun and a nice change of pace from the never stop, never done mentality of the practice day.
We meet at the gate at 11:30PM and sleep until 2AM then head up and sleep in the car at the start line until 6AM or so than go to the drivers meeting, try to find a place to brush your teeth and have a cup of tea. Ah the glamor of racing right there! So with my uncut hair pointing in ten directions and feeling a bit groggy and sore (not a camping fan, nor a car sleeping aficionado), we wait. The car is ready, I have been driving the mountain every day for hours after practice, doing low speed loops on the next day’s section, endless loops until I can feel my brain shutting off and nothing more to be gained. It’s fun to think as putter around with the tourists how somehow I get to come back the next morning and drive this same section of road in a car that is not remotely street legal and one of the fastest racecars in the world and have the same rangers that watch with an eagles eye for a hint of speeding on public days cheer me on as I rip past them in the racecar at 150MPH. Love Pikes Peak.
I’m very relaxed at the start line. I’m not always relaxed before a race but I am today. The universe seems content, the car seems ready, the team confident. What I should mention is that if we flash backwards 24 hours we would realize that the entire thing almost fell to pieces on a private road by the shop and that the car had had a serious rebuild to have me sitting on the start line period let alone calm.
That fog from the final day had Rob from RPS a little concerned – you see the carbon brakes like moisture, so if the humidity goes up, the brake rotors and pads both absorb the water and it comes out the next time you get the water to boil. It comes out as steam and creates a frictionless layer between the pads and rotors. Frictionless brakes? What a terrible idea, so Rob insisted we run the car at the shop and get the steam out. Fine idea except we also managed to get a bunch of steam out of the engine and into the cooling system just as Cody’s vision was blurring as the boost hit (true story) on the private road test run. That meant only one thing and it wasn’t good. We had at least one blown head gasket, the engine needed to come apart and we needed to be loaded into the mountain at no later than 6PM for the race the next day. At 5:55PM Enviate rolls through the gates Pikes Peak, one more miracle added to a now rather long list.
The light turns green. I am off, engine feels strong, grip good with a touch of new high speed oversteer. Make a note: Easy on the rear tires, they have to last so I back it down a notch from full kill mode and try to keep flowing. The road is going by fast. Remember we only do it by sections so it feels very different to drive the whole thing and there are people everywhere waving, this feels cool, this feels special – driving something this fast on a road like this in front of thousands of people. Through the picnic grounds foot to the floor, if I get to the shift lights in fourth that will be around 150MPH which will be (and was) faster than anyone else that day. Turn after turn, they are all weird, unique, not like a racetrack – the mountain decided how this road flowed and it feels nothing like a racetrack, the rhythm is different and better, less antiseptic more real like The Nurburgring, it isn’t watered down. It’s a car that performs like an F1 car on a normal road and we are climbing at an alarming rate as I get up past Elk Park I notice something else climbing at an alarming rate… the oil temp. I then quickly glance to the left and the rock steady 190F of water temp is now 207F, we are in trouble, not even half way up with the stop and go W’s to contend with before the ultra-fast road and thin air at the top section.
My mission has now changed from victory to survival, I must finish for the team, too much work and many naysayers, I had to get to the top. That meant short shifting (not going to redline) and once in top gear holding throttle to maximize airflow while minimizing load hopefully meaning the engine stays alive as it transitions from water cooled to air cooled (something it was never designed to obviously do). As I cleared the W’s I knew I was getting close, carving corners, late on the wonderful carbon brakes trying to balance time loss with reaching the top. With my super efficiency mode engaged I was trying to carry more speed where I could because it would help airflow and get me to the top faster, but I was almost fired off the mountain at the notoriously bumpy patches just before Cog Cut. Settle down, re-focus, less than a mile to go. The mountain wasn’t quite finished with me yet though.
One more hairpin, Olympic corner is approached by a fast top of third bumpy right hander. As I exit the corner and line up braking for Olympic I do my little coast to keep the engine alive, then go for the brakes. As soon as I downshift the engine dies. I release the clutch in second and nothing. Try it again in first, nothing, then the car just stops. 150 yards from the finish in the middle of the corner. I hit the starter button and the engine barely turns over. I flip off the water pumps (air pumps at that point!?) to give the starter more juice and it turns over faster but still won’t fire. What to do next? Well I am from Colorado and live on a very steep mountain and there have been many times where I have re-fired a car by bump starting it in reverse. Put it in reverse, let off the brake, cranking the wheel so I don’t back off the cliff and GO! The engine immediately fires, and I stick it in first and blast across the line. WE… HAVE… DONE… IT!
The car built in a shop by a guy in a place that has perpetual winter and darkness has just finished 2nd in Unlimited class after sitting on the mountain stalled for over 30 seconds. The last and final miracle has occurred. Cody Loveland beats the mountain or maybe more fittingly shows what can be done if you just believe, have the grace under pressure to stay calm and the perseverance to see it through… until the very top.
Me: “Cody, let’s do it again in 2018, I’m sure with some refinements and testing we can get the record”
Cody: “OK” …Cody is calm.